Field of Science

Why teach Intelligent Design?

At the 74th symposium at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Eugenie Scott, Barbara Forrest, and Ken Miller each gave talks about Intelligent Design:
  • The evolution of intelligent design
  • The religious essence of intelligent design
  • Deconstructing design—A strategy for defending science
Eugenie Scott at CSHL

During the question session, I had a question:
Me: When I graduate next year and begin as a professor at Harvard I'm planning to teach Intelligent Design in bio class. Is that going to be a problem for the NCSE?
Scott: Why would you teach ID in biology class?
Me: (Hesitating) Because it's a good way of teaching what science is and what it isn't, for instance, and because...
Scott: Yes, you can do that at the university level. You should not be doing that at the high school level. (...) But be aware that you if you do that, you're going to need to spend a hell of a lot of time on it.
Me: I'm gonna spend 10 minutes on it, because that's what it deserves.
Scott: No. Sir, if you do that, you'll be doing a disservice to science, quite honestly.
Miller: And incidentally, congratulations on your appointment.
Scott: But you seriously need to spend a lot of time on nature of science. You cannot just say "here is what it is," and expect the students to absorb that.
I was quite surprised by Scott answering me with question. The answer I gave was not so well thought out. What I should have said, and would have said if she had not interrupted me, is that I'd like to teach intelligent design also because it is something that students might have heard about, but might not be totally clear on. Where should the students learn about it otherwise? From their pastor? By reading Behe, Dembski, and Wells? No, from their biology professor. The professor can ignore it, dismissing it as unscientific, but that will leave more questions unanswered for the students. Unlike what I led Scott to believe by my answer, I do not intend to teach philosophy of science. I do think, despite her warnings, that it can be explained in a very short time why Intelligent Design is not science (though, as I have argued before, I do think the hypothesis that some systems are irreducibly complex is scientific). In fact, relying on the students having the tiniest rudiment of understanding of what science is and isn't (and I did mentioned that I would do it at Harvard), I think Intelligent Design can be shown not to be science within a couple of minutes. The rest of the 10 minutes can then be used to show how proposed irreducibly complex systems could have evolved.

Lastly, let me note that while the hypothesis of irreducible complexity can be tested, I am not implying that if that test fails evolution would have been shown not to work. The reason I say that is that Lenski, Ofria, Pennock, and Adami published a paper in Nature in 2003 showing that what is by definition an irreducibly complex system can evolve. It was done in digital organisms, so the full fossil record was available, providing proof that such systems can evolve by random mutations.
The evolutionary origin of complex features, Lenski, Ofria, Pennock, Adami, Nature (2003), 423, 139-144.


  1. What does 'irreducibly complex' mean? To me, it sounds like a false concept, like the irresistible force or the immovable object. (A friend of mine once asked me, "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" He apparently thought he was being very clever. However, adding an implied 'can't' to everything does not make it automatically super-cool; instead, it risks turning the concept into a meaningless logical fallacy.)

    Can one support the concept of irreducible complexity so that it has relevance in realistic terms? Or is it just another rhetorical and meaningless 'can't'? That's what I'd want to know if I were a Harvard student taking basic bio. I can't imagine too many students making it all the way to Harvard without having heard the case against ID before. But determining at what point a system can't be reduced, and learning how to recognize that you're really at that point (and not simply at the limits of your conceptual understanding)... THAT would be interesting.

  2. I'm afraid that irreducible complexity" means nothing more than a system that cannot function with all its components. Take any one away, and the function is lost. The claim is that these could not have evolved one mutation at a time, since, in the case of the blood-clotting cascade, the animal would have bleed to death before blood-clotting had evolved.

  3. I think that failure to address Intelligent Design in the classroom is a mistake, from a science viewpoint, though it's a way of skirting the possible (in the U.S., I'm tempted to say, inevitable) outraged reaction from those with a religious axe to grind. But failure to show the kiddies how and why ID isn't science is altogether too easily "gamed"; the supporters of the ID viewpoint (and isn't their POV just as valid as the scientific one? /sarcasm) will claim that you didn't address it because you couldn't, that you are too close-minded to risk the debate, that you didn't want to lose credibility with the students by being proved wrong.

    Apart from lumping Christian ID into a class session with a sampler of over-views of other historical IDs (any belief system at all where some deity/deities Created the World), I don't know how you could make the point without Attacking Their Relgion; and then, they'd be offended by your implicitly equating it with Those False Religions.

    (I seem to be having trouble posting a comment with the Name/URL option. This isn't the first time. Is a Google account now necessary, or something?)

  4. "providing proof that such system can evolve by random mutations"

    but evolving something in silico is not proof that such an irreducibly complex system can evolve by organic evolution, which is the whole point.

  5. If the mechanisms/processes by which they evolve are the same as in organic evolution, then I think it does prove it. If the link between modeling and real life is not generally believed to mean anything, then there is a problem, indeed, but recall that models are applied almost any time organic data is used. Models, in a general sense, are what we are all testing, and assumptions are always made (e.g. prior probabilities, mathematical models, parsimony).

  6. I scanned the article. I do not see anything in there that corresponds to the mechanisms in actual organisms that actively work to ensure random mutations do not occur.

  7. Anon, the paper is about adaptation. Adaptation works by random mutations.

    Random mutations do occur in all living organisms (that we know of). (And, btw, Avidians are "actual" organisms, though not organic ones.)

    The mutation rate in Avida is set heuristically, because nothing evolves without mutations (of all sorts).

    Basically, your comment doesn't really have anything to do with the topic of evolving irreducibly complex features.

  8. First of all, I think that the argument of irreducible complexity is a bad argument because it's a reductio ad absurdum.

    Such arguments work extremely well in mathematics, but in empirical science their track record is bad because some way around the "absurdity" might be found which the proposer of the theory hadn't thought of.

    E.g., the existence of the ether was once considered necessary, even proven, because waves (light) can't propagate in nothing, i.e. vacuum.

    Except they apparently could: No positive evidence could be found for the existence of the ether, and in 1905 Einstein famously showed the the ether is not necessary for the consistency of the theory of electromagnetism.

    Likewise, saying that irreducibly complex systems can't arise spontaneously is equal to saying just about nothing, since in some cases they actually can - in physics I believe we see it in chaotic systems and resonance phenomena.

    So if the ID people and creationists really wanted to go places they'd want to find positive evidence that point to a creator or designer - evidence that could supposedly tell us something about said designers nature, tools, methods, etc. Alas, such a theory is probably not forthcoming.

    Carl Sagan had an outrageous idea in one of his novels, that the Creator actually signed his work by embedding a representation of a picture of a circle in the decimals of Pi - the ID people would have to come up with something similar if we are to take them seriously.

    Even so, I tend to agree that the argument of irreducible complexity is scientific, even if it is potentially flawed. However, I think that what makes the ID theories really not science is that they're not falsifiable - there's no experiment we could design og perform which would make these people change their mind. And if you've already made up your mind (or let your religious ideas make up your mind) as to what class of phenomena you will accept from Nature and what kind of theories you will use to describe them, then you're not a scientist period.

  9. Hej Agger.

    I pretty much completely agree with what you say here. Very well put.

    Tak for det.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS